Melissa Kelly has won two James Beard Awards for her cooking, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a chef. While the cuisine at her three Primo restaurants in Maine, Orlando and Arizona is truly a work of art, Kelly gets the most attention for the way that she sources and grows her food.
A chef with a penchant for harvesting her own produce, raising the meat that she serves and sourcing what she can’t grow herself from a network of small farms, her commitment to fresh food shines through at her restaurants.
We sat down with Chef Melissa Kelly to find out why a sustainable approach to serving local foods in restaurants is important to her.
“My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad worked a lot of jobs for her to be able to do that. She made homemade granola and cooked and baked, and we had a garden, and we did it because it was cheaper for us to grow vegetables than buy vegetables. I’d watch her make meals out of this little tiny piece of meat and it was a great meal,” Kelly says.
Coming from a background of frugality and simplicity with food, Kelly was shocked at the popular Nouvelle cuisine approach in restaurants in the ’80s when she started her career. “It was really pretty food, but it didn’t taste good,” she says. “Most restaurants were serving up continental cuisine and there was a lot of French chefs coming over and cooking with a European influence.”
Kelly chose to go a different route, bucking the trends and instead working under the guidance of Chef Larry Forgione at a restaurant called An American Place. Forgione later went on to become a co-founder of the American Food Studies: Farm-to-Table Cooking program at the Culinary Institute of America.
“Larry was one of the pioneers of American cooking. His philosophy was that we did American regional food. We were not allowed to use any European ingredients, we couldn’t use anything that was imported. He taught me how to work with small farmers. He had foragers and fishermen and we had like 50 different people showing up in the kitchen each day with mushrooms or eggs or honey. I learned so much working with him, and it reinforced how I grew up,” Kelly says.
After traveling the country cooking, and successfully starting a bed-and-breakfast on a sheep farm for her clients, Kelly wanted to try a farm-to-table restaurant concept on her own. She and her business partner bought an old house on a large piece of land in Rockland, Maine, and turned it into the first Primo restaurant.
“That was 16 years ago,” she says. “People would call up and say your menu looks so exotic. Exotic? I had mashed potatoes on my menu. I had never before thought about cooking my grandma’s raviolis in a restaurant because it was two different things, restaurant food and home food. Then the gap started to be bridged for me, and that’s when I realized what my mission as a chef was going to be.”
“I don’t want to be the best chef in the world. I just want to cook good food. I want to support great farmers, and I want to teach the young kids about food,” she says.
With a resume of cooking awards and three restaurants packed with hungry diners, it’s safe to say that Kelly has excelled at all three.
Feature image courtesy of Whisper Creek Farm at Grande Lakes Orlando